Thursday, December 5, 2013

Magic Wands and Traffic Lights

Bright, cold, sunny day, first week of December. We go for a run. As we finish our last mile, we pass a brick apartment building. I notice a chicken in the kitchen window of the first floor apartment. It doesn’t move. It’s a stuffed chicken. Why would someone stuff a chicken? Was it a prize chicken? A pet? A few yards further Roberta and I prepare to cross Queen Anne Avenue North, one of Seattle’s busiest arterials. After many years of negotiating the crosswalk with only a little yellow light feebly flashing a word of caution to the motorists rocketing up the slope to pay heed to the pedestrians, which they mostly do not, we now have a full-fledged traffic light, a ponderous apparatus with a set of signals the drivers must take seriously.
The grade up Queen Anne Avenue North is quite steep. When it snows in the winter, it becomes a popular ski slope. The rest of the year drivers shoot up the slope with extreme aggression, which I believe has something to do with fighting gravity, or the anxiety of falling rearward if the engine of one’s car suddenly gives out, or one’s tires lose their grip, which sometimes happens. When it rained, the tires of our Subaru Justy used to spin and squeal like teenage banshees at a Justin Bieber concert. We would barely make it to the top.
The crosswalk is well-marked, but no one pays any attention to crosswalks in this city. It’s just white fluorescent paint gobbed on asphalt in thick meaningless stripes.
The most worrisome aspect to this crosswalk are the drivers who, heading north up the steep slope, do not see that the car ahead of them is stopping for a pedestrian. They assume the car is stopping to make a left turn, or stopping for no reason at all, which is typical of Seattle drivers. Seattle drivers have a tendency to lose cognition of their function as drivers and stop, presumably to receive a sign from God or the unconscious to give them renewed purpose and direction in life, or sink into the wax of their being and ferment in inanition. Until then, they’re just going to sit in their car and gaze over the steering wheel as gobs of spit drool from their chin.
This is a common occurrence on the steep slope of Queen Ann Avenue North. The drivers behind, irritated and cursing, make a sudden strategic move to the right, thinking to pass the stopped car and reenter the proper lane as soon as they crest the hill. It’s a lucky pedestrian that notices this, and a lucky motorist that sees the pedestrian before creating another traffic fatality.
The new light is wonderful. There is a button to press that makes a little beep, or blip, and the light turns red almost immediately. Cars stop. One proceeds into the crosswalk feeling like a king or queen on the way to a coronation. The power to stop traffic with a color is a form of magic. The eyes moisten. The pope and court retinue await our arrival on the other side. The motorists gaze at this spectacle with seething impatience. But, perhaps, also a little awe, as the court applauds our arrival and our heads bow to receive anointment and crowns.
We pass a high granite wall on Highland, where the street curves gently to the north, then straightens in an east/west direction. The big rocks are sparkling. I’ve never noticed this before. It must be the direct light of the sun creating this effect.
Later, after showering and getting dressed, we go shopping for groceries. Not much. Just a few items. The bill comes to $80 dollars. I’m amazed. I examine the receipt more closely when we return home. How is it possible that this amount of groceries could be so expensive? How do people manage? Are goods becoming scarce? Is it price fixing? What gives?
The coffee is the most expensive item. We got two one pound bags of Starbucks coffee, at $14.00 each. $4.59 for whipping cream, $4.99 for a jar of strawberry jam, $5.29 for a hunk of Romano cheese, $4.49 for a two quart bottle of Welch’s grape juice, $5.29 for a container of Feta cheese. $3.39 for spaghetti sauce, $3.39 for a dozen eggs, $20 for wine and root beer.
There is a sheriff’s car in the underground parking garage when we arrive, the lights on the roof of his black and white car flashing. There is no immediate explanation for this. No one is being cited or arrested. The sheriff and his car are still there when we return with our groceries, the car lights still flashing. This worries me a little as we are driving the neighbor’s car. They’re on an overseas trip and asked if we could drive their car from time to time, as this was recommended by the local mechanic. If we were to be stopped by the police for some reason we would have some explaining to do. Fortunately, we exit the garage without any incident.
We watch a segment on Thalassa about a fish in the Sea of Galilee called tilapia, or Saint Peter’s fish, so-named because of the story in the Gospel of Matthew about the apostle Peter catching a fish that carried a coin in its mouth. It is assumed that the species was the tilapia, though it is not so named in the Bible. It is also probably the tilapia that appears in Mathew 14:15-21 (King James version):
15 And when it was evening, his disciples came to him, saying, This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals.
16 But Jesus said unto them, They need not depart; give ye them to eat.
17 And they say unto him, We have here but five loaves, and two fishes.
18 He said, Bring them hither to me.
19 And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude.
20 And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full.
21 And they that had eaten were about five thousand men, beside women and children.
The meat of the tilapia is white in color with a flaky texture a little firmer than that of catfish. It provides more protein than it takes to raise it (unlike farmed salmon or tuna), are omnivorous, preferring phytoplankton or benthic algae; in the Sea of Galilee they love protein-rich duckweed and filter algae from the water using the tiny combs in their gills. The fish are highly adaptable, easily cultured and can tolerate low oxygen levels and a range of salinities. They’re happy in ponds, rivers, lakes, canals, even irrigation channels. They have high reproductive capacities and quickly establish self-reproducing populations. The fish has an oval shape and is sometimes referred to as an “aquatic chicken.”
Tilapia is known as izumidai when prepared for sushi.
Thalassa is a program on our French cable station (TV5 Monde) featuring everything and anything to do with the ocean. Water has been on my mind a lot lately as I’ve been reading L’eau et les rêves by Gaston Bachelard. I was struck by one passage in particular, having to do with Poseidon defending the daughter of Danaos from the attack of a satyr. Poseidon thrusts his trident into a rock and water gushes out, thereby discovering a life-giving spring on the otherwise completely arid island of Lerna. The story, gleaned from Charles Ploix, is referred to as a “baguette magique,” a magic wand. I find this interesting. The image of a stick thrust into a rock and producing water has an obvious sexual implication. This makes me wonder further about the phallic power of the magic wand. A conductor’s baton, for instance, is shaped very similar to that of a magic wand, and as the conductor waves it rhythmically about, it seems to draw from the orchestra a world of sounds and timbres as if it were a form of conjuration as much as musical direction.
The pen, too, is a form of magic wand, a little stick full of ink from which words are conjured, worlds created.
There is similar imagery in the poetry of William Blake, as in this passage from the Book of Thel: “Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod / Or Love in a golden bowl?”
The first recorded instance of the word ‘wand’ with reference to its magical power is (according to the OED) this passage in Middle English from The Wars of Alexander, an alliterative poem surviving in fragments on what is called the Ashmole manuscript housed at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. It was written sometime between 1450 and 1500 by an anonymous author: “On hiȝt in his hand haldis a wand / And kenely by conjurisons callis to him spirits,” which I translate as “On high in his hand holds a wand / And keenly by conjurations calls to him spirits.”
I discover another spring, this time in the pocket of my coat. But it’s detritus, not water, that I bring forth from its depths: two ticket stubs to Nebraska at the Guild 45th, two ticket stubs to Philomena at the Uptown, and a receipt for four pillows from Fred Meyers.
The pillows are wonderful and have made a significant change in our lives, providing rest and sanctuary, a place that is soft and receptive for the weight of the head, full of the problems of life, and hungry for sleep and renewal. 


Lucas Moore said...

Wow!!! I like this post. It is very good and interesting post. Let see what will be next.

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John Olson said...

Thank you, Lucas. Great to hear that.

Steven Fama said...

"The crosswalk is well-marked, but no one pays any attention to crosswalks in this city. It’s just white fluorescent paint gobbed on asphalt in thick meaningless stripes."

Good one! I know what you mean. Here in San Francisco they've tried to gussy up the painted stripes in some intersections, such as giving the crosswalk the Abbey Road look, or painting between the stripes to make it look like faux cobblestones. A few intersections have a series of markers -- > > > -- painted on the pavement as cars approach the crosswalk. A very few crosswalks -- and you may have a couple in Seattle like this -- have lights on the stripes/pavement that actually blink when someone crosses.

Regardless, I still advise looking both ways, twice, before crossing the street!

John Olson said...

I don't know what it would take (flames, drum majorettes, sirens, death masks)to induce motorists to take crosswalks more seriously. But the new traffic light on Highland Drive and Queen Anne Ave North is fabulous. It's a very busy crosswalk, part of a highly popular runner's route, as well as the public in general, strollers, rovers, jokers, bowlers, holy rollers and mothers with dogs and perambulators. The light was installed not quite a month ago. Now, if we can work on getting the bicyclists to slow down. Nearly got clobbered yesterday. Whizzed by like a meteor.